North Korea’s Long Game

For anyone who’s not yet aware of it, John McCreary’s NightWatch is really an incredible resource. Not only does McCreary cut through some of the signal noise of news coverage, he also includes generous pointers in terms of crisis analysis and historical context for young analysts. As someone who spends a good deal of time wading through open source coverage, I’m quite grateful that someone like McCreary is both out there and willing to share his expertise.

His narrative explanation of North Korea’s strategic objectives from today’s dispatch is essential reading. Most of the reporting I’ve seen emphasizes Pyongyang’s “bluster for concessions” negotiating style. McCreary puts the sought-after concessions in context. The North Korean regime wants desperately to make their propaganda reality, that is, to be a prosperous, powerful state. But it’s too weak and isolated to do so, and too brittle to admit that it can’t. So it breaks the rules to get back in the game. The difference now is that Kim Jong-Il’s clock is winding down, creating incentives for escalation.

North Korea, though, can’t accomplish anything constructive. Its only leverage is the threat of destructive behavior. But that only works as threat, or at most, provocative skirmishes. Because as costly in terms of lives and regional stability as conflict would be, North Korea would be crushed in the event of all-out war. The uncertainty about whether it has deliverable nuclear warheads, combined with its coventional missile deterrent, rules out any aggressively coercive approach on our part. But the certainty of the outcome of major hostilities rules out anything more than nibbling around the edges on theirs. Take away the face-saving element and that’s far less than the national security threat alarmists have been portraying.